'Sesame Street': Meet the New Puppeteer Inside Big Bird

Courtesy of Sesame Workshop
Matt Vogel (right), with his Muppet alter ego, Big Bird.

Matt Vogel, who took over the role last year, talks about being the "best version" of the iconic character he can be: "You really feel the weight of it."

Matt Vogel had just moved from Kansas to New York and was looking for work as an actor when his girlfriend showed him an ad in Backstage magazine. "It had a picture of Kermit the Frog," he remembers, "and it said, 'Do you measure up to be a Muppet?' Then it gave all these details about what qualities they were looking for and it turned out I had all of them."

And then some. Today, 23 years later, Vogel, now 48, doesn't animate just any Muppet — he's the man inside the Muppet, taking over the role and voice of Big Bird from longtime puppeteer Caroll Spinney after he retired last year at age 85. "My job is to carry on where Caroll left off," says Vogel of playing the 8-foot-tall, bright yellow avian who's been a part of every episode since 1969. "I try to honor the original performance and the heart and soul of that character and be the best version of Big Bird that I can be."

When Vogel first auditioned at Jim Henson Productions, he was nearly cast as the polar bear in what would become an iconic 1990s Coca Cola commercial (which Henson's company produced). But then he bumped into Spinney, who at the time had been looking for an apprentice. "Caroll's eyes lit up when he heard my name," says Vogel. "He said, 'Oh, your name in German means bird. This may be the job for you.' And then he shook my hand and off we went. That's how I got a wing in the door."

Playing Big Bird hasn't changed all that much over the decades — Vogel climbs into the same bird suit that Spinney wore, using a thumb-wire to manipulate facial expressions while watching the Bird's movements on a small video monitor inside — but it takes years to master. "You really feel the weight of it," he says. "It's got something like 4,000 feathers." As Vogel learned to pilot the puppet, he also picked up other jobs, early on serving as an assistant puppeteer for Ernie and then taking on the Count and Kermit. But, of course, on Sesame Street, Big Bird is the big game, arguably the show's most iconic character. Landing the part has made Vogel, who later married the girlfriend who showed him the Backstage ad, a hero to their five kids. Kind of.

"When they were younger, they thought everybody's parents worked at Sesame Street," he says. "But now a couple of them are in high school and they have a little bit more awareness of what I do. They walk by and hear people say, 'Oh, there's Big Bird's kid.'"

Read more about Sesame Street:

50 Years of Sunny Days on 'Sesame Street': Behind the Scenes of TV’s Most Influential Show Ever

Where 'Sesame Street' Gets Its Funding — and How It Nearly Went Broke

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: My 50-Year Friendship With Big Bird and 'Sesame Street'

Childhood Heroes or Poor Role Models? Meet the Muppets Evicted From 'Sesame Street'

'Sesame Street' Movie's Writer-Director Reveals Plot Details

This story first appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.